By: Catherine Day
Art by Will Bland
Once upon a time, there was a house in the desert. A young man and woman lived there, and they were happy. They had water to drink and food to eat, and at night, when the hot sun went down and the stars came up, they would sit around their fire and the woman, Isabella, would tell stories. She told tales of far off woods and enchanted groves; daring seas and hidden islands; stories of treasure, adventure, magic, and love.
Until one day, the man, Leander, decided to leave. His wife begged him not to, for didn’t they have all they needed right here? But Leander had always wanted to seek his fortunes elsewhere, to have adventures like the ones in Isabella’s stories.
On the night he left, Isabella held him by the fire, and she told him that she would always be with him. “Look at the stars,” she said. “As they helped long ago travelers find their way home, they will lead you back to me.”
For many years after Leander left, Isabella stayed in the desert. She knew her husband would find his way back to her, that he would return for her on a white horse, ready to lead her off on adventures of their own, to their own fairy tale story.
But the years passed, and he did not return. Isabella’s face grew thinner, her hair lanker, until the day when she decided he wasn’t coming back. He’d been gone for years, and if he was going to return, he would have done so by now. Something was wrong: her husband needed her.
The next evening, she set out across the desert. She would wait no longer for Leander to return. She would find him herself. She would make the fairy tale come to her.
After weeks of walking, Isabella arrived at the edge of the desert. She stopped to rest under a tree, and was drinking from her waterskin when she heard a noise. As she approached the undergrowth where the noise was coming from, a person tumbled from the bush. The man had overgrown hair, and his eyes were milky with blindness, but there was no mistaking his face, still sharp and intelligent after all these years. It was her husband.
“Leander,” she called, her voice breaking. “Leander!”
The man looked up, his whitened eyes widening at the sound of her voice. “Isabella?” he said, as if he couldn’t believe his ears. “Where—” he started, hands outstretched for her, but she had already clasped him in her arms. Her tears washed away the grime on his cheeks, and her hands straightened his hair, and her kisses kindled his soul, but she could do nothing for the blindness in his eyes.
“Where have you been all these years?” she cried, as they sat tangled together under the tree. “Why did you not come back for me?”
Her husband was desolate. “My love, leaving you was the greatest mistake of my life. I became lost soon after, and went blind from hunger and thirst. By some miracle, I found this waste, but being unable to see, I could go no further. I had thought that I’d never see you again before I died.” Leander cupped her cheek, but Isabella didn’t answer.
“What is it, dearest? Why are you quiet?” he asked her, his other hand searching for hers.
Isabella’s tears were falling again. “I have left our home behind, to come in search of you. And now I have found you, but you are hurt, and sick. We have abandoned our fairytale.” After all the long days of walking, the years by herself, Isabella sank into Leander’s arms as if they were the home she had left behind. Her sobs echoed at the edge of the desert, her years of burden sloughing off.
Leander stroked his wife’s hair, his unseeing eyes misting with tears. “We will never get back the years I have been without you,” he murmured. “That is a loss that will never recede. But my eyes?” He stood, keeping his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Now that you are here, that is something we can fix.”
It took them some time to find a suitable witch. Isabella and Leander traveled for a month, her guiding him, away from the desert and into the habited forests. They walked from town to town, asking for any magic users who could help them. But everywhere, they were told that magic was a rare thing these days, that seldom few were willing to face the high price of practicing it: the sapping of your beauty and youth.
It seemed as though their search was over, that Leander would have to live in darkness for the rest of his life, until Isabella had heard tell of an old crone who lived in the mountains, who could cure any sickness with a spell from her devil’s garden. She demanded a high price in return, it was whispered, but no one knew what it was. Leander, however, decided that this witch must be the one. Why else would she be the last one they heard of? The fairy tales would say they were on the right path.
A week later, after treks up cliff sides, Isabella and Leander found her tower. They were silent as they approached, wary of the witch’s reputation as a madwoman. Yes, they were here to ask for her help, but that didn’t mean they wanted to be too friendly.
But they needn’t have worried. The witch was nowhere to be found. The tower itself was beautiful, with gray stone walls reaching high into the treetops, its red slate roof barely visible through the trees’ limbs. The ground around it sprang forth with colorful plants, wolfsbane and yarrow, nightshade and horehound, flowers dotting the tapestry like gems on a noble woman’s dress.
“Leander, there’s no one here,” Isabella said, after they had circled the tower twice. “Perhaps we should leave before she comes back. We wouldn’t want to–”
“Want to what, little twig?” a voice said behind her. Isabella whirled to find an old woman before her, her voice stiff and gummy, like fabric hidden in an attic. Her back was hunched, her face spiderwebbed with wrinkles, her teeth rotting, jutting. She looked every inch the legend she was supposed to be, from her straw-like white hair to curled toe black shoes.
Isabella took a step back.
The witch grinned at her, molars jutting like boulders. “You’re not the first ones to seek me out, little twig,” she said. “Old Alecto is a helpful one, yes she is. She turns not one away, not when she can be of some, small, use. What, pray tell, is it you seek?
“Madame… Alecto,” Leander said, looking over the witch’s hunched back. “We seek a cure from your garden of miracles. A potion, a spell–something to restore my eyes.”
Alecto smiled her boulder smile. “An eye-sight potion?” she said, “Well, that is simple for old Alecto. But, of course, she requires something in return…”
Leander beamed, the first real smile Isabella had seen on his face since she found him in the waste all those weeks ago. “Name your price, old woman. I swear on the River Democritus that my wife and I shall find a way to pay it.”
“Swear, eh?” said the witch. “Well, in that case.” She bustled around her garden, adding purple and yellow and blue plants to her basket. Isabella squeezed her husband’s hand. In a few moments, he would see her again! And they would have their fairytale once more.
The witch finished gathering her ingredients. She tied them into neat little bundles, and handed them all to Leander.
“Chew one of these a day. Over a month, your eyesight will be restored. And now,” she said, turning towards Isabella. “For the payment.”
Leander lept in front of her, but it was no use. The witch ducked under his arm, seizing Isabella by the wrist and pulling her towards the base of the tower. Muttering to herself, the crone cast a handful of sage leaves at the earth. Isabella felt her feet leave the ground. She screamed, and Leander staggered in the direction of the noise.
“Isabella, Isabella! Yell so I may find you!” he said, arms outstretched.
“Here!” she said, voice straining. She fought against the witch’s grip, but it was iron tight.
“None of that, little twig!” The witch shook Isabella with shocking strength, rattling her eyes in her skull. “You swore, young man! Your wife is mine. Enjoy your eyesight, for I have my prize!” Alecto cackled, a terrifyingly deep and aged sound, as she pulled Isabella higher into the sky, her arm screaming in pain. Isabella’s feet were level with the bushes, then Leander’s head, then the first branches of the oak and spruce around them. She felt the tears spring to her eyes as Leander blundered across the cleaning, searching for a way to save her.
“Isabella!” he said again. “Isabella, my love, I will rescue you! We will be together again!”
“I know!” cried she. “I know,” she whispered, as the witch’s cackles filled the air, as her husband faded from view.